The Spanish influence on Central American history is none the less overwhelming. Central America is no younger child of Spain. No less a personage than Christopher Columbus himself discovered Honduras in 1502, sailed south along the Mosquito coast of Nicaragua (where he was not impressed by any friendliness in the Indians), and reached, finally, to the land that he called Costa Rica (literally "Rich Shore"). There, for the first time on this voyage, the Spaniards found gold--in the ornaments worn by the natives. Those beautifully wrought ornaments of Costa Rica are rare archeological treasures today, and, as Columbus himself later learned, they were treasures to the Indians then, for gold was no common metal there. But the sign was enough for the Spaniards, and the short-lived settlement of Costa Rica, headed by Bartholomew Columbus, was one of the first on the mainland of the continent.
But in that very time there was passing away in the north, in what is now Guatemala, one of the greatest barbaric civilizations which history has ever seen, that of the Mayas, a wealth and a civilization of which the Spaniards were as yet entirely ignorant. Superb cities, built of stone elaborately wrought, with a literature even today only partially deciphered, a science in many ways more accurate and advanced than that of, the Europe of that time, and a social organization which the governments that have followed under Spain and the independence have hardly excelled,--these were the characteristics of the great history which preceded the Spaniards.
The conquest of these Central American Indians by the Spaniards came nearly two decades later. Although little known, in comparison with the conquests of México and Perú as immortalized by Prescott's vivid narratives, it lacks none of the heroism, or the cruelty, or the bigotry, of those larger canvases. The march of Pedro de Alvarado's army, overland from México into Guatemala through jungles that are utterly trackless to this day, is another of the striking stories of superhuman endurance that mark the whole history of Spain in America.
The battles whose scenes we shall visit in the highlands of Guatemala have a legendary glory awful in its horror and superb in its daring, while the hazy tales of ruthless and easy conquest of tribes other than the Mayas and their highland allies, are virtually hidden in the as yet unscratched archæology of these countries, yet for that matter, neither the one nor the other seems less lost in dim tradition than are the events of the Spanish rule that followed in succeeding centuries.
Indeed, the background of the Central America of today sometimes seems like a dim romantic panorama, of prehistoric civilizations, rivalling Egypt and India, of Spanish conquerors running rivers red with the blood of Indian armies, of pirates treading the "Main" with dripping swords and leathern sacks of yellow gold, and, in more modern days, of chivalrous revolutions and burning idealisms, of slavery and the wealth of coffee, of colorful dictatorships and the golden trove of the banana trade. It is all part and parcel of a past of isolation in the very midst of the world. For three centuries Spain held the world at bay, and then for an even hundred years revolutions, politics and diplomacy have shut Central America away not only from Europe and Asia but from the United States as well..